The Internet of Things or Things on the Internet?

12/02/2018

Time to stop playing things on the internet and start building the internet of things.

We’ve been using that stupid IOT acronym for quite some time. Probably a decade. The idea and notion that every object can be network enabled, share its collected data and receive its commands remotely is quite exciting. I think we’re far from that vision.

It isn’t that we’re not making progress. We are. The apartment building I now live in is 3 years old. It is more automated than the previous apartment building I lived in, which was 15 years old. I wouldn’t call it IOT or a smart building quite yet. And I don’t think there’s a simple way to turn a dumb building into a smart one either.

When we moved to our new apartment we renovated a bit. There was this opportunity to add smart-home capabilities into the apartment. There were just a few teeny set of problems here:

  1. There’s no real business case for us yet. As a family, we really don’t need a smart-home, and frankly – I still haven’t seen one to appreciate the added benefit
  2. Since we’re in a highrise, the need for an apartment security/surveillance system seemed like an overkill. The most we ended up with is a peephole camera for the door. Mainly to empower or kids to see who’s knocking (no IOT or smarts in it)
  3. Talking to the electrician to ended up dealing with our power outlets at home, I understood that there’s not enough electricians available who know how to install a smart-home kit here in Israel

And to top it all, it felt like a one time undertaking that will be hard/impossible to upgrade or modify later on without a complete overhaul. That wasn’t what I was aiming for.

Mozilla just announced their Things Gateway that can be installed on a Raspberry Pi 3. It is a rather interesting project, especially since its learnings are then applied to the W3C Web of Things Interest Group with the intent of reducing the fragmentation of IOT. They’ve got their hands full of work.

IOT today is a patchwork of devices and companies, each trying to become a dominant player. The end result is that we’re living in a world where things can be placed on the internet, but they don’t amount for an internet of things.

Here are a few questions/hurdles that I think we’ll need to answer as an industry before we can reach that vision of IOT.

Security

I am putting security here first. Here’s why:

  1. We all know it is mandatory
  2. We all know it is left as a backlog item if it is considered at all

I’ve seen it happen with VoIP and it is definitely happening today with IOT.

Until this becomes a priority, IOT will not really happen.

Security has many different aspects to it:

  • Encryption of the communications, to maintain privacy and allow for authorization and authentication of it
  • Upgradability, which itself should be secure, straightforward and automated
  • Audit logs that are hard to tamper with, so we can investigate hacks

Most vendors won’t be able to get these done properly to being with. And they don’t have any real incentive to do that either.

Standardization

There’s a need for standardization in this space. One that tackles all levels of the IOT food-chain.

Out of the top of my head, here are a few areas:

  • Physical – Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Bluetooth – all are standards for the underlying network layer to be used. There’s also RFID and other type of connections that can be used. And we need to factor in 5G at some point. We’ve got wireless ones and wireline ones. A total mess. Just look at the mozilla Things Gateway announcement for the set of connectors they support and how these get supported. Too much information to get things done easily
  • Transport – once we get communications, and assume (naively) that we have IP communications going, do we then run our data over TCP? Or TLS? Or maybe UDP? Or should we go for QUIC? Or HTTP/2? Should we do it over MQTT maybe? Over a WebSocket? There’s too many alternatives here
  • Signaling – What are the types of messages we’re going to allow? What controls what sensor data? How do we describe it in a way that can be easily extendable and unambiguous? I’ve been there with VoIP and it was hard enough. Doing it for IOT is an order of magnitude harder (more players, more devices, more everything)
  • Processing – this relates to the next topic of automation. Once we can collect, control and make decisions over a single device, can we do it in aggregate, and in ways that won’t lock us in to a single vendor?

I don’t believe we’ll get this thing standardized properly in our industry for quite some time.

Automation

I’ve seen a lot of rules engines when it comes to IOT. You can program them to create sequences of events – if the density sensor indicates someone is at home, open the lights.

The problem is that you need to program them. This can’t scale.

The other problem is the issue of what to do with all that sensor data? Someone needs to collect it, aggregate it, process it, analyze it and make decisions out of it.

Simple rule engines are nice, but they won’t get us far down the IOT path.

We also need to add machine learning and AI into the mix.

The end result? Probably similar in nature to AWS Deep Lens. Only problem, it either needs to be really generic and flexible.

Different Industries, Different Requirements and Ecosystems

There are different markets in IOT. they have different needs and different customers. They will have different ecosystems around them.

In broad strokes, we can split to consumer and enterprise. Enterprise here includes industrial, smart cities, etc. The consumer is all about the home, the car and the self.

Who will be the players here?

From Smartphones to Smart Speakers

This is where I think we made the most progress.

Up until a year ago, IOT was something you end up delivering to customers via apps on a smartphone. You purchase a lightbulb, you get an app. You get a new TV, there’s an app. Refrigerator? App.

Amazon Alexa did something miraculous. It moved the discussion over the home from an app towards a stationary home device with voice activation and control. No screen or touch screen needed.

Since then, Google and Apple have joined and voice assistants in the home are all the rage now.

In some ways, I expect this to find its way into the enterprise as well. First via conference rooms and later – who knows?

This is one more piece in the IOT puzzle.

Where do we go from here?

I have no clue.

To me, it seems that we’re still in the things on the internet, and we will be there for a lot longer.

Responses

Pedro says:
February 17, 2018

Hi Tsahi,

i believe you make a few interesting points. Thanks for sharing!
On the product side of IoT, i’ve been receiving info on Israel’s based CEVA for few years now. They seem to have been doing a lot of work.
Will pay attention to the developments myself.

Regards,

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